Friday, October 31, 2014

The Horror! The Horror!

At one point in my life, I thought that I hated horror movies, mainly because I don't like to get scared. Yet as I started looking back in the history of cinema, horror stands up better than most genres. I can't think of a single other sub-genre whose movies are so influential in pop cultures. There's the knife scene in "Psycho", the chest-burster in "Alien", the rotating head from "The Exorcist"...the list goes on and on. What makes these moments? It's because they're unique, identifiable, quotable, frightening, and new. With cheap sequel after cheap sequel hitting the theaters, it's a wonder that any horror movies managed to be exciting or frightening. Here, for your pleasure, I've compiled a list of the great horror movies as well as some notable exceptions with explanations for both. These are the musts, not just for horror, but for cinema.

Best Horror Movies (in no and yet some particular order):

Top Five:

The Blair Witch Project
This one tops my list as my favorite horror movie and yes, I already can hear the controversy. The film is poorly made; but that's its appeal. I think the distinguishing factor with "Blair Witch" is that the performances are so genuine that I understand why a generation was quasi-convinced that the film was real. It also was the first of its kind and a movie that proved that the unseen was far more scary than the visible.

The Exorcist
Perhaps the quintessential horror movie and certainly one of the most talked about of the decades after its release, "The Exorcist" is so much more than a jump-scare movie. It's a film about loss of belief, about doubt, about certainty, about sacrifice, about human demons, and about the devil himself, metaphorical and physical. Friedkin's movie is a symphony of terror and it plays out more like a ballet than an actual movie.

The daddy of monster-movies, this one reintroduced the genre to new viewers. Working from a Peter Benchley book Spielberg's trials with Bruce the mechanical shark are legendary and made the film even better. Never losing its human element (as if Spielberg ever could) this movie stands as the director's least sentimental and possibly his most iconic. Plus, we all have the music to remember.

This one holds a special place in my heart because I consider it to not only be a great horror movie, but one of the greatest movies ever made and Hitchcock's finest work. It's voyeuristic, it's twisted, it's sick, it's spooky, it features amazing performances, intrigue, guts, and the most infamous death scene in cinema history.

The Conjuring
Oh yes, how interesting to see this one here. "The Conjuring" was a blissful return to something operatically challenging and scary as hell. It's the kind of movie that gives you chills of fright and amazement. What "The Conjuring" did was create a renaissance in horror that finally strayed from gross-out horror movies and the prospects have looked up since then. I include it in the top five, because it's the best most recent horror movie out there.

Films No One Talks About:

Cat People
The slightly misogynistic film about Serbian women transforming into huge panthers and killing their sexual mates. Wow, no wonder people don't talk about it. The fact is that "Cat People" established some of the tropes that we see in modern horror movies. The unseen here is exemplified and it has a fitting and poetically disturbing ending. The souls of those evil are impossible to turn around.

Okay, this one has just slipped pop culture's mind. Talk to any enthusiast and this movie is sure to come up. The first interpretation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" gives us a chilling and sometimes comically frightening vampire movie. It is a silent gem.

There is good reason that no one talks about this film, we'd all rather not have seen it. From the graphic nudity to the almost unbearable physical horror—being termed 'torture porn'—"Antichrist" is another film that only von Trier fans seem to adore. I must admit, it's ingenuitive and horribly terrifying. The most gasps will come from this movie.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Most of the truest horror gems that are undiscovered in modern day views are the oldies. "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" was far beyond its time, stretching ideas of perception and the horrible idea that sanity should be questioned. It's stylistically one of the most recognizable films and also one of the most jarring.

The Wicker Man
Ah yes, the original with, not the Nic Cage "bees" one. The original film is a gloriously creepy fest of paganism and rituals. It sacrifices a happy ending in turn for the "one last scare". Beautifully shot and curiously sexual, fascinating on its own level, it's a truly "one-man-versus-an-island" situation.

Funny Games
This one almost made it into my top five because it's so freakin' good. The movie relies on the tropes discovered in the genre and plays off of them like no movie ever would before or after. It makes "Scream" look like "Finding Nemo".


The Evil Dead
Sam Raimi's original is full of gross-out moments; and yet, it is so perfect. It's funny, it's manic, it's cliched, it has an infamous sex scene that involves a tree....there's a lot to love here. But what doesn't escape the movie is that it is also genuinely frightening and this is what lands it in the mentions here.

Yeah, this one belongs here too.

I'm a little split on this one because I didn't care for the movie that much; but boy, are you in for a surprise. "Audition" is one of the nastiest horror movies you can pick up.

Like the previous movie, "Oldboy" doesn't exactly belong here; but it is horrifying enough and gross enough to place itself on the list. We are talking about the original here, the squid-munching original.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Okay, horror at its most obvious. Horror that can just steal your breath away, a horry

If you ever thought that horror was just about ghosts and jump scares than David Cronenberg's "Videodrome" can teach you otherwise. It's a movie about transformation and some of the body horror and shock that Cronenberg is able to throw in there is enough to make anyone's skin crawl. Long live the new flesh!

The Fly
Another Cronenberg, another transformation. If you thought the process of turning from human into fly was fun, think again. We watch as Jeff Goldblum goes from suave and surprisingly muscular (considering he's a scientist) to a slimy and deteriorating mass of flesh.

Other Essentials:

Rosemary's Baby
Pregnancy seems like such an apt time for a horror movie to occur and Roman Polanski's movie is just about that. It's not terribly frightening and yet it belongs on every essential list of horror movies.

The original version of what American audiences would be introduced to as "The Ring", "Ringu" is beyond what any other film makers were creating at the time. It's terrifying and beautiful and complex.

Wait Until Dark
More thriller than actual horror, "Wait Until Dark" makes you think it's just going to be another cheesy Audrey Hepburn movie...but not so. Alan Arkin comes in as the bad guy and the torments start to begin as a blind girl is caged in her house.

"In space no one can hear you scream." If this was meant to be anything else than horror, they would have had a different tag-line. "Alien" also managed to solve the problem of the haunted can't leave because there is nowhere to go.

The Haunting
Perhaps not as good as everyone seems to think, "The Haunting" can play out like a "bitches be crazy" movie; yet it can also be seen as a shift in the horror genre towards the modern day jump scare.

The Silence of the Lambs
More thriller like "Wait Until Dark", "The Silence of the Lambs" intimidated the Academy Awards and has been one of the most indisputable kings of horror ever since its release.

I've made no secret my distaste for Wes Craven but "Scream" is a movie that was so right for its time. It mocked the horror genre and also made us realize that these cliches could still be frightening. It's rare to find a film so self-aware of itself.

One of the first horror movies ever made, "Vampyr" can not be questioned as a beautiful work. It's terror is questionable; but the bizarre shots and wonderfully macabre themes make it unforgettable.

Let the Right One In
More vampires, more children, more surprisingly dull moments. "Let the Right One In" has no jump scare moments; but it does pull you into its world and it doesn't shy aware from violence and in the same breath it does not have to have graphic violence on screen. It's a very muted and curiously savage movie.

The Devil's Backbone
Guillermo del Toro's best movie and the most easily accessible horror movie. This is a great place to begin if you're working you way up to scarier movies.

What is most curious about "Changeling" is that it manages to make the inanimate scary. Wheelchairs and bouncy balls, yep, those are scary.

The Night of the Hunter
Love and hate...enough said.

Controversies of Note (movies I didn't like):

The Shining
If you talk to anyone about horror they will always pull Stanley Kubrick's movie out and wave it in front of you like you have to conquer it before you will be able to accurately define the horror genre. "The Shining" is a snooze-fest and it's never scary; but be prepared for people to cite its "atmospheric terror" as the reason it is successful. "The Shining" is a dull boy indeed.

I don't understand why people think this movie is frightening. It is uncomfortable, pervy, and it rips off "Psycho".

Should have been titled "bad guys who can't die standing at the end of hallways".

Nightmare on Elm Street
This movie can be original and Wes Craven tries his best; but the fact is that it's almost laughable at times. It says more that people know the movie because Johnny Depp is in it rather than why it is horror.

The Hills Have Eyes
Another Wes Craven, another ruined idea. "The Hills Have Eyes" is just plain goofy and it never feels real enough to be scary. Don't go "atmospheric" in defense, because no one's buying that.

Nosferatu: Phantom of the Night
Not to be confused with the original silent horror movie, this Werner Herzog remake is all about the humanity and the horror of being a vampire...and it's boring.

An American Werewolf in London
The transformation scene is best known...the fluffy dog biting cars at the end and the weird human/wolf love is forgotten.

Cabin in the Woods
I'm sorry. Whatever. Joss Whedon and horror shouldn't mix and while it tries to mock the horror genre it tries to hard to be original at the same time, making it fall flat on its face at times. It is good; but it could have been so much better.

Don't Look Now
For sure one of the biggest head-scratchers in horror, "Don't Look Now" is positively infuriating. I don't care how long it takes one person to deal with grief, the ending is so random. It's a critic's darling because it is Nicolas Roeg; but that doesn't make it even close to good.

Roman Polanski can make good horror, it's just not seen best here.

And there you have it. Entirely filled with my opinion.


  1. Great list! I own many of these films--Psycho, Exorcist, Wicker Man, Carrie (I like it better than you!), Shining (not your cup of tea!), and of course Rosemary's Baby...

    I would also add the original 1976 The Omen...and have you ever heard of a 1943 film called The Seventh Victim starring Kim Hunter from Streetcar Named Desire...I highly recommend it.

    1. "The Omen" has been on my 'to-watch' list for quite some time. The list is quite incomplete as it is. Actually, I did manage to see "The Seventh Victim" and I really enjoyed it for how brazen it was with certain themes (suicide namely) that are quite scarce in other movies from the time period. Killer ending.